Interesting Christmas Traditions in Spain
For many Spaniards, Christmas is synonymous with tradition and celebration. We have many traditions and some of them are quite curious. Let’s take a look at some of the ones that stand out the most.
Have you seen those representations of the birth of the baby Jesus displayed in many places, from individual homes to shopping malls? They are called “belenes” in Spanish (nativity scenes in English), and are a tradition that came to Spain from Naples thanks to King Charles III in the 18th century.
Another tradition that we owe to the notorious Charles III, which was also brought from Naples is the special raffle, the Christmas Lottery, popularly called “El Gordo” (the big one). This lottery has been played since 1763, and the most interesting thing about it is that the famous children from San Ildefonso School have called out the winning numbers since 1771.
In Spain we also sing Christmas carols; although it would be more accurate to say that carols are also sung in other countries because these songs have their origin in Spain. The first songs dedicated to Christmas were heard in our country sometime in the 15th century. Many specialists think that they come from “cantigas” (medieval poems from Galicia) and from mozarabic poems. The name “villancico” (Christmas carol) comes from those who sung them, people who lived in the town (villa, villanos).
The most traditional Christmas treat in Spain, turrón (turron, or nougat), also has Medieval origins. The irony is that this delicacy associated with a Christian celebration was created by Muslims in the al-Andalus era (from the 8th to the 15th centuries). But, why do we eat these sweets at this time of year? Antonio Martínez is to “blame.” He was the head chef for Phillip II, who showed that the majority of the artisans from Jijona (the city specialized in making these sweets) were paid in turron at Christmas time.
Marzipan also has an interesting story: it’s mentioned in “A Thousand and One Nights” as the perfect food for getting through Ramadan; so few doubt its origin in al-Andalus. But this sweet treat was made famous in Christian Spain thanks to Alfonso VII of León and Castile (11th century), who ate it for desert. Its link to the religion is due in part to the legend that affirms that thanks to marzipan, the nuns of San Clemente saved the population of Toledo from a terrible famine.
At the end of Christmas, and specifically on the day of the Three Kings (January 6) roscón a round cake, typical of the day is served. Part of its charm is that there is a surprise baked into the cake. It is said that the custom comes from the Middle Ages, although at that time, the present was a fava bean. The fact that the cake holds a little toy or a figurine comes from the time of Philip V of Spain, the grandson on King Luis XIV of France, who kept the custom of hiding a gold coin in one of the sweets in the palace for the fun of the nobles from Versailles going. When making the roscón, a popular treat, classes of humbler means changed the gold coin for a more affordable present.
But it’s possible that the most fun Christmas tradition is eating 12 grapes as the bells ring in the New Year. This one is a recent tradition whose origin divides the experts; some say that the tradition has its origins in 1909 to try to sell an excess of Vinalopó grapes (from Alicante); others cite the News Year’s Eve of 1882, when some youngsters from Madrid decided to parody the bourgeois tradition of eating grapes and champagne at the new year.
And finally, we should bring up a tradition that, even if it is Dutch, is very close to us. St. Nicholas, the man in charge of bringing presents to all children comes from Spain! It appears that the real St. Nicholas never passed through our country, so we wonder about the reason for this tradition.
What do you think? We hope that you’ll be able to experience all of these traditions on your trip to Spain.